Demetrius of Phaleron, the eccentric tyrant of Athens in the last years of the fourth century b.c., was the proud owner of a giant mechanical snail. This wonder of artifice led the religious processions for which Athens was famous, spitting up saliva, spritzing (we may guess) the squealing onlookers with cooling water, and leaving a deliciously repellent slimy trail behind to settle the dust.

Whimsical giantism was a hallmark of man’s makings in the snail’s generation—the years after the death of Alexander the Great surveyed here by Robin Waterfield. In this quarter-century, a larger-than-life captain would raise a titanic, bronze-clad siege-tower against the city of Rhodes, and, when it failed and was abandoned, the locals cast its metal cladding into the harbor-shadowing Colossus of Rhodes. War galleys bloated strangely, too: The swift trireme of Athens’ lost naval supremacy gave way to the quadrireme, and then to the quinquereme—and for some mighty enthusiasts for the monumental, even that was not enough, so sixes, and sevens, and nines, and tens took to the waves, and, once, a prodigious “forty-reme” (we have no good idea how such ships were rowed).

This was an age of engineers, a period of explosive innovation. Antiquity was, by modern standards, a millennium-long slumber of the technical genius of mankind. But the era of the snail was a fascinating exception. Nor were humanistic minds idle: In the crowd watching the snail slurp through the streets of Athens, the serene features of Epicurus might have been spotted, for within a few years he was to start teaching his quiet creed in the city. And maybe jostling him for a better look was Zeno, founder of the more assertive Stoicism. And perhaps, as the snail squirted him, the ready laugh of Crates the Cynic, the philosopher who became the mascot of Athens by simply walking into citizens’ houses uninvited to reconcile quarrelling relations, could be heard.

The Athens of Demetrius of Phaleron was well on the way to becoming the university town the Romans were to treasure. Demetrius was himself an intellectual, a friendly interlocutor of the smiling Crates, as well as an orator and polymathic member of the school of Aristotle, although he winked at ruling as Plato’s Philosopher King. In exile after his reign, Demetrius was to journey to Alexandria in Egypt and become involved in creating the great museum and library there; in one story, he was the presiding genius who organized the translation of Hebrew scriptures into Greek, the world-changing Septuagint. Demetrius had notions about the expressive power of eyebrows, and it is nice to think that he brought a bushy pair to teeming Alexandria, along with the ironic crook of his brow that had inspired his snail.

For in Alexandria, especially, an amused self-mockery was to take root in Greek art and literature. The ancient sense of humor, by turns either wanting or vicious, is as much a puzzle to us as the staggering march of ancient technology; but the time of the snail saw a gentle ironic wit that is far more appealing to our sentiments than the frenzied lashings of Aristophanes or Juvenal.

Demetrius of Phaleron was privileged to commission a giant mechanical snail because he was Athens’ sole ruler, in spite of the vaunted democracy that had ruled there for two centuries. For Demetrius was a small, and his snail a large, puppet of the Macedonian strongman Cassander. When Alexander died at Babylon in 323 b.c., Greece, reduced to restive obedience by Alexander’s father in 338 b.c., rebelled from Macedonian control. And when the Macedonians once again defeated the Greeks, they suppressed the democracy of Athens, thinking it easier to rule through a few prominent and pliable locals than the great and cawing Athenian assembly. As one Macedonian dynast yielded to another in control of Athens, so their Athenian creatures turned over to match.

Cassander was the disinherited son of Antipater, the harsh, graying retainer whom Alexander had left behind to rule Macedonia and Greece when he himself had marched east to conquer the world. But after Alexander’s death, and in the eagle-flight chasm of authority it left, the great men of the realm formed baffling and ever-changing combinations to hold an empire that extended from Greece to what is now Pakistan. One unsatisfactory heir to this world empire was a baby and the other a simpleton, and it is perhaps not particularly surprising that, at least in one telling, Alexander had left his empire “to the strongest.” One official-turned-warlord desperately evoked the nimbus of the king by displaying an empty throne piled with Alexander’s royal regalia, a sort of cargo cult to Alexander’s special magic.

Eventually, the several winners of the Wars of the Successors would rule as kings the parts of Alexander’s empire they had governed as marshals. And, eventually, they would learn to fill the gulf of authority left by Alexander’s death. But in the years when the impossible empire remained, in the minds of all, a shining unity, they fought without cease to control that unity’s fate, intriguing like the barons of the Wars of the Roses to control, or kill, possible heirs.

Cassander’s company was particularly unhealthy for Alexander’s sons, real or suppositious: Two died at Cassander’s hands, along with Alexander’s mother, the formidable Olympias. The ideal of unity, and the fact of division, shed blood. Like towering clockwork automata, set into heedless motion by a dead artisan, the successors swept up satrapies and cities, armies and elephants, in their train, and crashed into each other, the tearing-metal shrieks of their collisions rising over the moans of the world.

Something of the same problem of imposing unity on chaos confronts the historian who attempts the irresistible subject of these Wars of the Successors. For this is a period that violently resists being reduced to a single story. There is almost an exhaustion of high deeds: too many great men, acting in too many places; and tremendous new cities founded, it seems, every month, in imitation of Alexander’s many Alexandrias. (Antioch and Thessalonica are among the most famous today.) Interleaved with such tremendous acts are developments in science, art, philosophy, literature, and war.

A successful history, like Robin Waterfield’s, creates unity where the events allow: Beginning in Babylon around the corpse of Alexander, he holds the story together for as long as possible. And he artfully makes the end of Dividing the Spoils the tragedy of Demetrius Poliorcetes, “the Besieger,” the doomed warlord of manic energy who carried on fighting into the 290s and ’80s. But for the time between—well, Waterfield does all a historian can do: He makes sure all the characters are identified, provides good maps, and then gets out of the way of the events, standing in open-mouthed awe with his reader to watch the passing of titans and snails.

J. E. Lendon, professor of history at the University of Virginia, is the author of Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins and Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity.

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